Dallas — All over the world, it is always the social event of the fall when the opera season opens. So it was on Friday evening when the Dallas glitterati turned out in full splendor for our own red carpet occasion. The Dallas Opera opened its season at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House with one of the most popular operas ever written, Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Adding to the occasion, it was also the debut of new Musical Director Emmanuel Villaume, only the third in that position since the company was founded in 1957.
Coifed, gowned and bejeweled ladies and tuxedoed gentlemen started out with a catered dinner in a large tent next to the opera house. After the performance, it became the location for a celebratory reception, with a breakfast buffet and open bar.
But the excitement wasn’t just inside the sold-out Winspear. Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 opera fans sat on a combination of chairs and blankets in the city’s new Klyde Warren Park to watch the simulcast. While some filtered out, most stayed for the entire production. Sight lines were excellent and the large screen could be seen from everywhere. A friend who was there said “It was a blast.”
One fun sideline: Opening night, Oct. 25, also happened to be Bizet’s 175th birthday. A piano was supplied and the entire audience of thousands sang “Happy Birthday, dear George.” This didn’t happen at the opera house, but we did sing the National Anthem as befits the season opener.
Expectations were high as Villaume took the podium for the first time, to sustained applause, and he didn’t disappoint. Right from the first energetic downbeat, brimming with confidence, Villaume took change of the production and with that same gesture, he also assertively took charge of the Dallas Opera itself. As a conductor, Carmen was a triumph for the new maestro. As a Music Director, affirming his credentials of all to see, it gave him a solid launching pad for the future.
It was clear that Villaume has a unified concept of this opera. Each tempo and phrase didn’t stand alone, but was part of the overall architecture.The opera constantly moved forward and never bogged down, as it is wont to do, especially in the spoken dialog. Villaume gave his singers room to be expressive, but held a tight rein. The quick tempi were lickety-split, but in the Act 2 quintet (“Nous avons en tête une affaire”), the singers couldn’t quite keep up. Other times he luxuriated in Bizet’s glorious melodic gift.
The orchestra responded to him as well. A few horn baubles aside, they played with accuracy and enthusiasm. The Entr’acte before Act III was mesmerizing, featuring Principal Flute Helen Blackburn and harpist Jill Roberts Levy. Most importantly, there was never a balance problem between orchestra and stage. Part of this is because the cast is filled with rereally big voices, but mostly, it is due to Villaume’s sensitive attention.
As Carmen, mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, in her American debut, sang the role with intensity, displaying a dark-hued voice that sailed over chorus and orchestra. She was more petulant than smoldering, but she sang the role magnificently.
As the hapless Don Jose, tenor Brandon Jovanovich dominated the production. His supple Wagner-sized stentorian tenor produced both thrilling high notes and a gorgeous soft sound. The climax at the end of his flower aria (“La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"), usually blasted, floated like gossamer. Even better, he is a superb actor. His disintegration from stiff soldier to crazed madman was completely believable, physically as well as vocally.
Mary Dunleavy, a clear lyric soprano, was impressive in the role of Micaëla, showing just the right amount of steel under her maidenly shyness. Vocally, she was all you could wish for in the role. While she didn’t have the strength at the bottom of the voice to match the soaring top notes, the sound was always beautiful and round.
Dwanyn Croft, singing over a cold, made a fine peacock out of the matador Escamillio, always striking a pose for his adoring fans. Kyle Albertson was appropriately stiff as Jose’s commanding officer, Zuniga, and John David Boehr was convincing as his fellow soldier, Moralès.
The set by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was little more than a graffiti-covered masonry wall that left only a small portion at the front of the stage for director Chris Alexander to use. The center portion moved to make the scene changes. While it worked best in the last act as the outside of the bull fight ring, it was totally useless conveying the mountain hideout of the smugglers. It look more like an scenic lookout at a national park, with a careful path, complete with rope railings, leading up a gradual stone incline to a viewing platform.
The greatly reduced stage space meant that the chorus, meticulously trained by Alexander Rom, was always in an assigned spot and rarely moved around. The children’s chorus and the aforementioned quintet of smugglers and tavern girls (Margaine plus Danielle Pastin, Audrey Babcock, Stephen LaBrie and William Ferguson) offered relief from the static staging.
Costumes by Peter J. Hall were historically accurate. The chorus was mostly in dowdy browns. Carmen’s dress for the last act was red, but covered in black lace, much like the pall of death that hangs over her crimson life. She was only lacking a mantilla, which fine ladies would certainly be swearing to the bull fight. However, maybe that was Hall’s point. She isn’t a fine lady, although she may be dressed as one.
Overall, Bizet’s miraculous music, and unfailing dramatic sense, was the true star of the evening. No matter how familiar you are with the score, it always surprises with how wondrous it is at every turn. Bizet never knew the impact of his opera. He died shortly after it opened to bad reviews from ill health brought on by overwork and heavy smoking, finished off with a heart attack. He was only 36. Many of our great opera composers, such as Verdi and Wagner, were just getting started by that age. We mourn for what masterpieces he would have written, but this excellent production of Carmen reminds us of how thankful we should be for the one he produced.
» Click here to read our interview with Emmanuel Villaume
» Click the slideshow icon in the floating menu at the bottom left of your screen to see more photos from the production and from Klyde Warren Park